My father’s father was by all accounts a really bitter-hearted sort of person. I say “by all accounts” because I hardly knew him; he had at some point prior to my birth disowned my dad over a matter of money - he wanted to borrow a large amount of money for something my father considered ill advised, and my dad wouldn’t loan it. He wouldn’t talk to him for decades; choking to death from emphysema, his last words to my dad were “Tell him he owes me $50,000”.
Obviously I'm very late to this discussion - just catching up on several months of backlog reading now. But this discussion by chance falls into my area of interest and academic background: human sexuality/behavioral science. So I've thought about this kind of behavior a lot.
It's interesting that it seems so hard for people to empathize. I'm a woman, fairly liberal, and grew up in a household where "feminist" was a badge of honor, but I can't imagine not empathizing with anyone who is clearly in psychological pain, even if their actions are abhorrent. Even people who say hateful things - or even act on them - are clearly locked in a prison that they themselves perpetuate, and although a hateful ideology might provide some psychological relief in the short run, in the long run it only pushes them even further from actually getting what they want - to be loved physically and emotionally by a woman. You can hate the actions and yet feel incredibly sad.
What I would offer, though, is that most of the frustration here with proposed solutions (or lack thereof) seems to me to be misguided. Suggesting that men somehow figure out how to improve themselves, or learn to cope better with the inevitable, or that women need to find it in their hearts to put out for these men, or any other such solution seems to me to miss the point. Those are all individual level solutions for what is not an individual problem. They are only superficial, individual-level adjustments to a system that isn't working well as a whole.
Take a step back and consider: yes, there are many larger social currents that play into creating a pool of unpartnered (and perhaps un-partnerable) men. Some have been mentioned: economic forces that increase the gap between haves and have-nots, giving some men more economic status (or at least ability-to-provide status) and some less, internet culture that allows more prospective partners to reach a greater variety of choices, mass media that re-sets people's expectations of "average" looks and and "average" social skills (We can think about a scenario in which men and women living in a small village of 100 people in an undeveloped society will never have seen a super-model looking person in their lives. Their mental model of what "attractiveness" is will be based on the average looking people they know, and the curve will be bent much further downward than someone who has grown up watching television. They may still have an internal dividing line that delineates "potential partners who are not attractive enough to accept" but their line is likely to be quite a bit lower. )
But all these play against a background of assumption that human desire for partnership, and the meaning assigned to partnership, is a constant in all times and places, and I don't think that's true. In other words, we assume that any conditions which generate a significant pool of men who can't find partners will naturally cause hurt and hostility. I'm not convinced by that, at least not entirely. I would argue that for starters, there are cultural models in which the needs that incels in American/western culture feel are unmet (sex, companionship, status, identity) are met in other ways. In some cultures, there are respected identities for unpartnered men to step into that meet some of those needs in other ways. For example, many cultures have had traditions where young men would spend years or decades as warriors/soldiers or priests, and would only be available to compete for mates later in life. The intervening years, depending on the culture, would be either celibate, or there would be access to paid sex, or same-sex erotic pairings were acceptable. There have been cultures where life-long "bachelor" status granted status or other privilege. There are lots of ways that humans have found to do this. Men in these situations may been missing sex to a greater or lesser degree, but they weren't hating their lives and everyone around them to boot.
The difference is that in such cultures, there are usually ample ways for men to meet multiple needs, even if they aren't having sex. There is a lot of social connection. There are strong male bonds of friendship. There are clear and respected roles and identities to adopt. People often live in large kinship groups. Men in these groups may not be having sex, but they are valued, relied on, needed, and may be playing other identity roles such as son, uncle, brother, cousin in a way that fills the need for human contact, relationship, companionship. They may be interacting with and helping protect and teach other children in their extended family or community. Their lifetime "bachelor" status is accepted, understood, and seen as having a valuable social role. Is the lack of sex still an issue? I'm sure it is but it doesn't seem to brew these poisoned pools of hurting and hurtful people who feel abandoned and unable to be "seen".
So if I were looking for solutions, I think it's a bit of a red herring to spend time splitting hairs over whether it's reasonable or acceptable to tell men to work out, get a better wardrobe and come out of the basement once in a while. It is very, very difficult for humans to implement individual level solutions to society-level problems. Instead let's look at how we got to a place where there are fewer and fewer opportunities for social connection of any kind, where people who are unpartnered tend to live alone, where their need for companionship and touch is only acceptably met via a sexual partner (no hugging or holding platonic male friends allowed), where women are assigned the work of "emotional labor" in most relationships, leaving men who are unpartnered with fewer emotional skills or outlets and left to their own devices - no one they can comfortably cry on the shoulder of without being demeaned. Let's consider why so many men feel that having a female partner is their only possible avenue to access these social goods.
Even though western society tries to tell us that sex is a primary human drive, maybe THE primary human drive, there are many other societies who would argue that isn't so, that it's just one need among many that are equally primary. And if we solved some of these other problems, you'd still have lonely men, you'd still have sexually frustrated men, but you wouldn't have incel culture.
This was an incredibly heartwarming reading experience. I've been blessed with a vibrant romantic life but I've always been bothered by the lack of sympathy for those less interpersonally fortunate. I remember when "nice guy" started being used as a synonym for "entitled misogynistic douchebag", similar to how most people outside the namesake community use "incel" now. I think perhaps this becomes something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Ultimately, I see very few counterexamples to the idea that people's instinctive reaction to obviously low-status men ranges from "condescending pity" to "you're breathing a lot of oxygen that probably is better used elsewhere". This is one of those counterexamples, and it's a breath of fresh air to see genuine understanding for a group so thoroughly dehumanized.
As a father of two boys in the 18-29 age bracket, I've been constantly worrying about this trend. As a society, we have made tremendous strides towards empowering women. Unfortunately, in that same time period we've seen a lot of horrible examples of male behavior deserving condemnation. What we *haven't* had is healthy conversations on how men *should* behave now. "Don't be an asshole" doesn't really cover it. It's quite a catch-22 when in many situations unwanted advances are a ticket to at least social, and potentially legal, trouble, but at the same time young men are still *expected* to initiate romantic interest. I still haven't figured out what advice to give my sons, but I'm *extremely* thankful that I'm still quite happily married and don't have to try dating in this environment.
Incels seem to be more invested in complaining about their problem than in making a plan to fix it. They don't seem to be trying to be attractive or personable or fun to talk to. They aren't willing to wait a few years until they're, you know, not 22. They reject any suggestion that they might see a sex worker or go into therapy. (Yes, I know neither of those things is as satisfying as a mutually committed, loving relationship, but sometimes you need to start on easy mode when you're learning something.)
Whining while rejecting any solution someone offers always kills my sense of sympathy.
Great post! And troubling stats.
It reads like a 7-year-later sequel to SlateStarCodex's "Untitled."
The sad thing is that you have to put in so many disclaimers and "yes, I know this" items to have any chance of not getting toasted.
For the record, the following also deserve some sympathy, some consideration: Nazis, thieves, murderers, pedophiles (including active ones), people who want everybody else's life run according to some weird fucked up delusional system that should only matter to them, parasites, torturers, slavers, and everybody else.
Even people who spend all their time searching a reason to look down on somebody, a reason to punish somebody, a reason to disdain somebody less pure than themselves. Even they deserve some sympathy.
Even if one HAS TO oppose somebody in some way, even if one HAS to thwart somebody or do sombody harm, that is still harm, and it is still a bad thing. Ignoring that fact is evil, not admirable. If I say "I have no sympathy to spare for those scum", that makes ME a worse person... regardless of who the scum may be. I should care about that.
You catch me in a rather cranky state. You also catch me inhabiting a female body, unmarried, and old enough to have experienced all the usual female interactions with people I'll refer to sarcastically as "Penises Who Talk", Dicks for short.
I am old enough that in my childhood the best career prospect seemingly available for my future, was "wife and mother". I'd have a male boss (no question of equality here; men were, by virtue of their masculinity, smarter than me, far more virtuous, and the only humans capable of rationality, among the many ways in which they deserved to each have a personal servant). It wasn't OK if they were to beat me, of keep other women, or trade me in for a younger, prettier model - but of course less desirable men did all those things, and if I picked a poor husband, or wasn't attractive enough to attract a good husband, then I'd simply have to cope with the results. (A great grandmother, pre-availability of divorce to lower classes, had abandoned her wife-beater and moved with her children to a large and distant city, where she claimed to be a widow.)
If I didn't marry, either by choice or necessity, my options would be worse than if I did. I'd still have a male boss, but I'd be paid less than men doing similar work - or than men in general, at least of roughly the same class - excused by women not needing to support families, even those who were widows-with-children, abandoned-wives, etc. etc. And the jobs available all involved being some kind of servant, whether to children (teacher, governess), customers in general (waitress), the sick (nurse), God (nun), or (only whispered) the horny (whore).
Fortunately, feminism became noticeable to me while I was still in high school, before I had to commit to a career. I ran screaming from everything on this list, and for that matter from all the preening and behavioural ego stroking I was being taught as means for attracting the all important male boss, preferably in the form of a husband. The result was a young engineer whose butch appearance and mannerisms were only limited by the need to remain hire-able.
I wound up concluding that in my particular case, a woman without a man was like a fish without a bicycle. I didn't enjoy sex with them, and the remedy of "keep on trying" and "it'll be different with 'me'" didn't work. I never found one who would do an equal share of relationship management etc. - they were all emotionally set up to be breadwinners with an emotional support partner - and my inclinations and skills ran the same way. I eventually settled down with a nice woman, even though we had no sexual interest in each other.
Add to this all the usual experiences with Dick. The supposedly complimentary cat-calling. The flattering, friendly, flirtatious ass-pinching. The insistence that my refusal to spread my legs for them was offensive and unfair. The accusations that I was a race traitor for not bearing their babies. The repeated attempts to take advantage of my autism, by pretending to be a friend, lying about their sexual desire/attention when asked, and then dumping me when I never did put out. The insistence that I should audition each and every one of them on my back, searching for a "good lover" who would "cure" my "frigidity." (One tip off in recognizing Dick was that I was always "broken"; they were either perfect, or deserving objects of my charity and pity.)
OK, two points here: (1) when a husband isn't going to provide a better economic experience than no husband, rational shoppers require them to provide something else. Women like me haven't found that "something else" on offer. It's unclear to me whether younger men have improved enough to change this calculus, if e.g. my 15 year old self were miraculously transported to a modern high school or college. My guess is she'd try a few, and give it up for a waste of time, just as I did, but with rather less self doubt.
(2) With regard to the statistics you cite, with more young women in relationships than young men, that's neither historically nor pre-historically unusual. The stereotype of grooms being older than brides is based on reality, at least an average reality. Young women are very attractive, for lots of good evolutionary reasons; in general, they are more attractive, at least to the little brain, then they will ever be again. That's not true for males, because women appear to be less motivated by "looks hunky" and more motivated by long term personality traits. Even the sexual plumbing supports this disparity - simple intercourse is far more likely to be satisfying for males than females, leaving the young man with the initial task of learning how to be an adequate lover.
(2b) In fact, getting established enough (etc) to attract a wife is one of the goals that helps young men develop from callow youth to productive members of society.
At any rate, the relative unattractiveness of young men, compared to young women, is not a market failure; it's been a reality in many societies. My maternal grandparents were unusual in both being born in the same year; my father was 14 years older than my mother. And I can't think of any couple in my family tree, or among my acquaintances, where the wife was more than a year older than the husband.
I suspect young men are traditionally kept on the "right" social path by a mix of seeing it as a path to establishing themselves as attractive (when older), availability of paid outlets, and possibilities for rape and wife steeling. (E.g. raiding the neighbour tribe, joining the army, etc.)
My sarcastic advice to Dick has always been to hire a professional, and in particular to stop demanding charity. They aren't getting a "pity fuck" from me - not that they'd want one from the old lady I now am - and I'm all in favor of younger women taking the same stand. Maybe there are some women who really like sex - or really want "service" roles - you might want to take on the mission of servicing callow youths, and perhaps teaching a few of them how to become competent lovers of females, or otherwise improve their attractiveness. (I can't imagine taking that role, but human variety amazes me.) Meanwhile, though, biology has placed young men in a hard place, and they just have to thole it - just as I would have had to thole being abandoned or beaten by a poorly selected husband, if I'd followed the cultural roles I was born into. Young women have their own common problems. So do older men, and older women, and every other demographic you care to name.
Sorry folks, no one owes you a living, let alone a lay.
And as for the bad actors - well, I'm all in favour of giving their behaviour the response it deserves, from social snub up to and including execution, depending on specifics.
I just found this blog, and just wrote a fairly hostile comment on the David French post. And I do think that at least one part of that was poorly argued to the point of borderline dishonesty.
But I immediately feel bad because this is brilliant. This is everything I've been saying, and wanted to say, 10x better than I ever could. People are too emotionally invested in this to change their minds much, I suspect, but if anything could do it it might be this.
Thanks for your nice words and your sympathy.
I'm an 35 year old incel and it looks definitive now. Since I'm done with school I have tried relentless to change myself. I did a 10 days intensive meditation course, I have tried theater, dance and sport. I have travelled. Having a romantic story looks as much unreal as being Ryan Gosling or David Beckham.
Thanks for writing such a thoughtful post!
This is the only unjustified claim and I think (also) the unstated assumption at the crux of differences in how people treat "incels" and other groups like them:
"Being sympathetic or nice might have an outside chance (however small) of reforming a few bad actors; we wouldn’t expect the same results from a stony lack of empathy."
I know I'm only a couple of years late to this discussion, but I just wanted to note that if you haven't read Scott Alexander's "Radicalizing the Romanceless" on Slate Star Codex, you should. It's required reading for anyone who really wants to understand this topic rather than just traffic in platitudes.
Congratulations on a brave and valuable post. I think there's a subtle but incredibly important distinction between believing yourself to be entitled to sex, and recognising that it's a fundamental, primal desire and that when it can't be met, that can't help but damage you in some way.
Naturally, it all comes down to sex involving the consent of another person. When it comes to food or shelter, we're happy to say that people have a right to them, because their having them doesn't infringe on other people's liberties. Whereas in the case of sex, declaring you have a right to it implies that someone else has an obligation to give it to you, which obviously isn't true. But that doesn't stop it being a tragedy when decent people who want eros and intimacy are doomed to never get them.
"Don’t get me wrong; there’s plenty of people of both genders talking about this problem, though I do think it is a bit surprising how many women there are."
There's some interesting data on this in "Everybody Lies",
"Google searches suggest a surprising culprit for many of these sexless relationships. There are twice as many complaints that a boyfriend won’t have sex than that a girlfriend won’t have sex. By far, the number one search complaint about a boyfriend is “My boyfriend won’t have sex with me.” (Google searches are not broken down by gender, but, since the previous analysis said that 95 percent of men are straight, we can guess that not too many “boyfriend” searches are coming from men.)"
Goes on to counterbalance this with the observation that men may be more comfortable talking about this issue in other settings w/o resorting to google search so 2:1 ratio is probably not accurate. Still, a lot more common than people think.
A reminder that to refute the incel ideology, one must understand their stance on the matter. They claim that:
1. Even when discounting lookism and aestheticism, women naturally prefer men with dominant antisocial traits
2. Natural aestheticism beats exercise by a long shot, and that attraction to muscularity depends on bone structures
3. There are significant health risk for being lonely, and socio-economic status does not help with not being lonely
I found this Substack via Scott Alexander's link to the Sadly, Porn review, and was quickly attracted to this post. Just want to say thanks for the sympathy. As best I can tell scanning through the comments I'm the first commenter so far who would qualify as a current incel, although certainly the 'lowercase i' or 'quasi' variety depending on how you want to describe it. And I think I would definitely qualify. I am late 30's, have never had sex in my life, and have only been on maybe a half dozen dates in the past 20 years.
I get amused by a lot of the articles and comments and Jobian friends that assume my state must be due to some deep moral failing. By most measures of society I'm a pretty successful, upstanding guy. I'm tall and slender with gym muscles and a decent looking face, a six figure salary and a nice urban apartment, a decent number of friends (not easy when you reach late 30's and your peers are stuck at home with families), good social skills and the ability to make crack jokes and make other people feel invested in a conversation (and the self-awareness to not intellectualize when trying to flirt), a wide variety of social hobbies, and while I'm not an absolute 10 on the social courage scale, I do open conversations with strangers and ask women out occasionally. I could go on but you get the point; there are plenty of guys other there who are not as close to 'finding themselves' who nonetheless have a passable dating history and often a long-term partner to the point where I start to ask, well, if they can pull it off, what's my problem?
In spite of everything I have a very positive attitude and stay focused on trying to solve the problem with my own actions as best I can and otherwise enjoying all other aspects of life, so it is weird that they received message I get in most public forums is that it isn't a real problem and I probably deserve it. I certainly don't take this attitude when it comes to adversity I hear about other people dealing with. So thanks once again, and great blog overall as well. You have a unique background but the posts are interesting and your writing is really strong. I'm about to hit subscribe after this comment.
Late to the party, but after doing a snoop around deadbedrooms and focussing solely on the dead bedroom marriages…and speaking as a woman who has stopped having sex with their past partner, for a lot of women, it’s resentment that kills their libido. For whatever reason they have started to resent their partner. Communication has massively broken down and it’s getting worse day by day.
Now, for me, the resentment stemmed from being with a partner who was an overgrown child. I literally had to mother this dolt. He was incapable of adulting on any level and he had about as much emotional maturity as a wet sock. And boy, lemme tell ya, it is really hard to be aroused by a man you have to mother. Compound all of this with his inability to openly communicate and take what I was saying onboard and you have yourself a recipe for disaster. I can’t help but think this might be a common cause for a lot of these peoples dead bedrooms. Their partners don’t have a generally low libido or any sexual dysfunction. They just have a low libido for their current partner and for whatever reason they’re not talking about it. No one is at fault the same as they’re both at fault. As with everything, it takes two to tango, and a relationship cannot thrive without any input from both sides.